Saturday, November 16, 2013

Chicken or the Egg translated to education Practice or Belief?

In an administrative meeting, after a session of instructional rounds, we began a discussion about why we see pockets of excellence in a building or even promising practices in one subject area not present in another when looking at the same teacher. The group did come to some consensus that all teachers want to do their best and want to be using the best practices for their students. (If there are teachers out there that do not want those things, then we have a much different problem.)  That led to the discussion about beliefs, philosophy and practices. I honestly feel that we have many teachers who are using less than effective strategies and doing things that have a negative impact on their students because they truly believe that those things are what are best for students. I will just throw out one of my own personal crusades, how to handle late work. Giving students no credit for late work is touted by some teaches as preparing the student for the "real world" or teaching them responsibility. I would argue that this practice does neither. In the "real world", deadlines are missed regularly.  Manytimes they are missed due to timelines being too ambitious, overloaded individuals or departments and even simply because people just weren't able to do the work without further training. An example: I hand out things to teachers asking that they be returned by a specific date and have normally have far less than 100% meeting my deadline or even in completing the task. I have posted deadlines for grades to be due and in eleven years as a principal, have yet to have them all in by the deadline. Some of these instances result in disciplinary action but most end with my assisting the teacher in accomplishing the task. None of the staff, even those disciplined, have compensation withheld due to not meeting timelines and none are allowed to just not complete their grading. I would also argue that when individuals, miss deadlines, they learn nothing if I let them off the hook and either finish the task myself or assign it to another. I am sure that people can argue the opposite side of this issue with their own examples of cases where when deadlines were not met, the employee lost their job.  I doubt these are as common as we try to get students to believe, however.
Back to the real purpose of this post which is the analysis of whether, changing a teachers beliefs or practices needs to come first in a reform effort. I argue that changing beliefs is much more difficult than changing practice. Teachers want to believe that what they are doing is best for kids because we take what we do very personally. Often to the extent that we identify ourselves by our job.So if what we are doing is not best for kids, then we ourselves somehow lack worth. This has a tremendous impact on our willingness to take risks. We get comfortable and convince ourselves that the way we were taught and learned are the most effective ways of teaching and learning. It scares us that the way we have been teaching all these years could possibly be less than perfect. Afterall, we can all point to students who have excelled once they left our classrooms as evidence of our effectiveness. To convince a teacher that they need to change a practice that has become a cornerstone of their teaching and which they have defended over the years is nearly impossible. It often requires that they see evidence that the proposed change will have a greater impact than the current practice. If the evidence presented  is generated in anther school, there will immediately be defensive reaction generally citing the difference in demographics between the two schools or a declaration that there must be an  inequity in the resources afforded the teacher in the other school. The preverbial, "Ya But" of somekind generally surfaces. If, however, they are forced to make a change in their own practice and can experience first hand the positive impact it makes, they will become an immedaite convert.
So, knowing that there is generally an implementation dip with the introduction of any new skill, how do we insure that a teacher sticks with it long enough to see positive results?  Quality  professional development prior to implementation and adequate support during, which includes positive reinforcement from the administrator. Praise for effort is a tremendous motivator for educators, We generally have an open Mindset and truly believe that we can get better at things with practice. However, we can also be quickly discouraged when a tremendous amount of effort does not yeild immediate results. This is where the encouragement from an administrator is essential. They need explicit affirmation that what they are doing is "good" and they are an "awesome educator" for making this change. They need to hear that the administrator knew the change would not yeild immediate gains and reassurance that their efforts will lead to not only great improvements in their own classroom but later in their leading other staff members through the sharing of their experience, the whole school as well.
The other administrators laughed at me when my response to how do we get teachers to leave their current practices for those which research suggests are more effective.  My answer was, "We make them!" . However, I sincerely believe that with the exception of a few leaders and early adopters, teachers will not abandon practices they have grown to be comfortable with unless they are forced to do so. When I say "make them", I really mean having some frank discussions with the individual or group, building up their confidence by sharing your confidence in them as a leader, providing opportunities for new learning, setting a timeline for implementation, adequate support while implementing the new practice and finallly, recognition of their success in front of their peers.
I am a big fan of Leading Change by Kotter and understand the importance of creating a sense of urgency, but to be honest with you,  if teachers don't have this by now after all of the negative light that has been shed on our schools over the past twenty years, then they never will. Creating a sense of urgency is not where we need to spend a great deal of time with our teachers. Even those who aggressively defend their schools and individual practices deep down know that we need to do better.  Teachers and administrators love to plan and plan and plan so at some point, the administrator must set a deadline and force someone to try something new. This is what I feel he is citing as the creation of a guiding coalition. Build capacity with a few so that they can later lead the many.
As I stated in the beginning of this post, I believe that you must change practice prior to belief in almost all cases. You can monitor practice far more effectively than you can beliefs and what gets monitored is what gets done. You can "force" people to do things, you can't "force" them to believe.

Is Organization Really the Key to Success?

Although I have often heard the phrase, “Organization is the key to success”; I would argue that communication (including within my definition are empathy and an ability to manage relationships) plays a much bigger role in reaching success. Communication is a very complicated thing in that it requires effort from both the sender and the receiver.  To compound the problem, a number of factors impact the mere words we utter. Our tone and our level both impact someone’s perception of what they are hearing. Body language also plays a very big role in communicating with others. You would think that written words, carefully selected, may be a better way to communicate, but even those absent level, tone, and body language can easily be misinterpreted.  How many times have you read an email and felt the other individual was implying something other than what was being stated clearly?
Although communication can happen in a variety of ways, my personal preference is a face to face conversation with an individual or small group.  I can judge misinterpretations through the body language of those I am communicating with and make clarifications prior to further confusing what I am trying to communicate.  A phone call would be my second choice as it still lets one hear the emotion in the other’s voice. Email and text have become very popular forms of communication due to the fact that they are asynchronous meaning the sender and the receiver do not have to exchange information in a volley but rather leave long periods of “silence” between exchanges. I use email a great deal in my job and have found that it is an efficient and effective way to convey just pure information to an individual or group. I have also found that it is a terrible way to communicate with someone concerning a problem. Texting has also become very popular, particularly with teens.  It provides them an opportunity to communicate things silently and thus have a second conversation going on with someone not in the immediate vicinity. Personally, I do not like text but there are those who will send text rather than answer the phone when they receive a call. It provides teens an opportunity to communicate things they may not have the courage to say.  That can be a positive or negative as in “I love you” or “Why don’t you jump off of a bridge?”  Both of these statements come from strong emotions and definitely illicit strong emotions from the receiver. Texting, Facebook, Twitter etc… can be wonderful ways of keeping in contact with friends and family, but they can also be used to hurt others as well.

This year we have made it our goal at the high school to improve our communication with the parents of our students. We have been increasing the number of phone calls we make each week and making not only calls sharing concerns, but those praising accomplishments as well.  Parent teacher conferences have provided our parents an opportunity to meet with their child’s parents, but with only occurring once during the middle of the semester were not as effective as we would like them to have been. Our attendance was scarce, having only about 20-25% of our students’ parents attending. The conversations were shallow, generally falling into one of two categories: grades or behavior.  The grade conversations were generally around how the student could get a better grade and little of any discussion about how well or what the student was learning. If the student had an A, teachers praised the parent and if the student had a poor grade, the discussion was on what they could redo to bring the grade up. Some of these grade discussions even became adversarial between the teacher and the parent both wanting the other to do some things differently to improve the students’ grades. The behavior conversations went along the same path; praise for the parent whose child was compliant and worked hard, and concerns for those who were not. We had long lines so the majority of a parent’s time was spent waiting to talk to a teacher not in the conversations themselves. With our goal to improve communication and relationships with parents we have modified the format of conferences. We hope for the focus to be on the whole child and their learning and away from merely grades earned or behavior problems in individual classes. Students and their parents have been contacted and 10 minute conferences scheduled with the student's Dodger Time Advisor. The conferences are being held at the end of the term witth hopes of reflecting upon learning and establishing goals for the next term. The student’s advisor will be providing each parent a list of e-mail and phone extensions for every staff member in the building. We also hope that in this meeting the advisor will establish a relationship with the parent and become a contact they have in the building who sees their child every day, all year long. The ultimate goal is to establish an environment in which parents and teachers feel comfortable making contact with each other anytime throughout the year and not just at a conference held at midterm.  As organized as the student, parent or teacher may be, without effective communication, the student’s level of success will never reach full potential without effective communication between these three factions. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

Job imbedded professional development

When I arrived in Fort Dodge I was directed by the board to take a look at the schedule and improve the climate at the high school.  Our curriculum coordinator and one of the assistant principals, Ben Johnson, had pursued the AIW initiative which was a new thing to the state of Iowa. I placed Ben in charge and asked him to select an initial group of teachers to participate. That initial group did an outstanding job of really engaging in the process and promoting it to the rest of the staff. Over the past four years we have gradually added groups until this year when we now have asked all staff to participate. We started this process with the understanding that if it is important work then we as administrators should be providing our staff time to do it. We looked at how staff time was currently being used and then eliminated supervision duties that existed in their 90 minute duty/prep time.  We asked all staff to use the time we freed them from duties to engage in either AIW or another PLC focus which aligned with the building goals. By placing this in their existing schedule, during the day and in place of less than professional responsibilities allow us to respond to the typical "I dont' have time" arguement.  An AIW leadership team was established which really began to direct this initiative.
With the success we had with this implementation process, we included collaboration time as one of the requirements for a new schedule. This year we are on a six period day in which instructional responsibilities are assigned five of the six periods with one period being reserved for preparation time. However, the building leadership team decided that on Wednesdays, collaboration would take place during that preparation period and the AIW process will become how we do business rather than something we do. Peer critique is now part of our teaching process.  Within the new schedule we have three semesters each 60 days in length. During one of those semesters, teachers are only asked to have 4 traditional instructional periods with the an additional period spent on preparation and the last period spent in a PLC. The topic was RTI and the process went like this... First the teachers read some lliteratuire on the use of data.  It quickly became clear to all that data does not instantly give us answers, but rather frames better questions and points to what information it is important to keep, what we have and what we need to go get. This also led staff to the idea that we need to look at establishing common assessments which are geared towards what specifically we want students to know and be able to do. We also quickly recognized that not only do we need to create higher quality assessments, but an assessment structure/plan to ensure measurements are taken routinely and strategically. The next readings were around screening and diagnostic tools including their use to identify struggling students and specifically what problems they are facing.
Once we practiced using some diagnostic assessments on just a few students and then reflecting upon that experience with our peers, we looked for specific strategies that would address the needs. Fortunately, we had built a strategy toolbox the previous year in anticipation of this professional learning.. The strategies were again practiced with studensts in a small group situation. We purposefully put teachers into situations where they could develop and sharpen skills in a safe learning environment.It proved to be very successful.
A facilitator/coordinator was placed in charge of the whole process and she created a Google Doc to allow teachers to reflect asynchronously.  This enhanced the reflection even more due to more input.
It has been a great move for our school and for our distruct. We are exciteded to continue this practice next year as well moving the focus from our own learning to providing students the support they need to be successful in the regular classroo setting.